US aid to Colombia: Another quagmire?

President's plan to cut drug trade could entangle US in struggling

In a risky move near the end of the Clinton presidency, the White House has begun a major initiative to increase money, weapons, and diplomatic support for the struggling democratic government of Colombia.

A proposed $1.6 billion package over two years would solidify the South American country's position as the third- largest recipient of US aid, behind Israel and Egypt. The money needs to be approved by Congress, however, and could face a challenge.

Officials here say the aid will help the Colombian government clamp down on illegal drug producers, whom US drug-enforcement officials blame for 80 percent of the cocaine and most of the heroin in the US.

Yet, there are other goals at hand, including regional stability and efforts to boost the wobbly government of President Andrs Pastrana.

It is an example of the Clinton administration using its financial strength as a tool to enhance national security.

The plan has been criticized, however, because it could get the US involved in a longtime civil war between the Colombian government and rebels in the south, who are closely tied to the drug production.

"I can't guarantee this [aid] will not be used against the guerrillas - if the guerrillas are involved in the [drug] business," M r. Pastrana told reporters in Washington during a recent lobbying visit.

Another concern US officials express is the moral implication of supporting the Colombian military, which is accused of committing human rights violations and being linked to paramilitary death squads.

Could interrupt peace talks

In one part of the plan, the US would train three elite Colombian counter-drug battalions and give money to buy 30 to 50 US-made Black Hawk helicopters.

President Clinton has called the plan "risky," but said, "I think we're going into this with our eyes wide open."

Furthermore, analysts worry that US aid could interrupt what little progress has been made in ongoing peace negotiations between Colombian officials and the largest group of rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Pastrana withdrew his troops from parts of southern Colombia to facilitate the talks.

"Adding hardware and troops will intensify the conflict," says Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Center for International Policy here. "This is the first time [the US] has given aid for an offensive operation against the Colombian rebels."

Colombian officials say just the opposite is true - that cutting off the guerrillas' drug money will weaken them and make them more likely to agree to a peace settlement.

"They know that the space is closing [around] them, and they really want to go into a peace process," Pastrana said. "They want to be out of the mountains."

In a Jan. 18 speech outlining foreign-policy goals for the year, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Colombia was one of four countries the US wants to spotlight as a possible anchor of democracy in their respective regions. The others are Ukraine, Nigeria, and Indonesia.

Colombia is considered important to US interests because of its strategic location. One neighbor is Panama, where the US handed over control of the Panama Canal at the end of 1999.

Colombia also borders oil-rich Venezuela and Ecuador, where the military led a coup last month and handed over power to a civilian government.

The Colombian government is said to have lost control of 40 to 50 percent of the country to rebels, who are described as having a Marxist ideology.

The second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has been attacking the electric grids in the capital of Bogota for the past six months. Pastrana says he has been trying to pull them into the peace talks.

Making matters worse are right-wing paramilitary groups, who battle the guerrillas and have been known to massacre civilians.

Little sympathy for rebels

In a country of about 40 million, about 1.7 million people have been displaced from their homes. In the past decade of war, some 35,000 people have died, about two-thirds of them civilians.

While there is little sympathy for the Colombian rebels, analysts are concerned that the US may be approaching a slippery slope if it gets involved in the war - even though US officials emphasize that weapons, training, and aid are only for antinarcotic efforts.

The US has a troubled history of becoming entangled in military conflicts in Latin America - including unsuccessful ventures in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Colombia carries additional risk for President Clinton because of difficulties he has had in the past year getting foreign-policy measures through Congress.

One of the key goals for the administration last year, for example, was ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a key nonproliferation measure that Republicans defeated.

Democrats have criticized the Pastrana government for alleged human-rights abuses, while Republicans say it has been too soft on the rebels.

Majority leaders in both the House and Senate support the measure, however, and the White House is optimistic. "We expect to get bipartisan support on this plan, early this year, when Congress takes it up," says Mr. Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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